Mug-Shot Websites: Are They Extortion?
In 2010, a Florida man named Craig Robert Wiggen started the website Florida.arrests.org -- after he himself had done three years in prison for stealing credit card numbers in Tallahassee. He began collecting free mug shots of people who had been arrested. His intention was not to humiliate people, he said; initially, he thought he'd make money through lawyers and bail bondsmen advertising on his site.
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But Wiggens found a more lucrative way of earning cash -- having the featured arrestees pay a fee for him to remove their picture.
Now, some people are trying to fight back against these site operators, and a news article this weekend may have dealt them a major blow.
Lots of people have felt the wrath of Wiggen's site --- or one of dozens of copycat sites. For many who have been arrested and subsequently Googled, an internet search will often bring up their mug shot early in search results. That's true even if the arrestee has been exonerated or charges have been dropped.
Paying to have the pictures taken down, some people say, is extortion.
New Times spoke to a Palm Beach County woman whose photo from a drunk-driving arrest appeared on Wiggen's site, even though the charges against her were dropped. The site with her photo was the first thing that came up when people Googled her name, and she went years struggling to find a job. She said she paid to have her mug shot removed, but this only showed that she was willing to pay, and her image popped up on another, similar site that she suspects was also run by the same operator. When she paid to have that removed too, she says, she began getting job offers. She said the website fees cost her about $1,000.
This weekend, the New York Times profiled a few people who have had similar problems in Florida: a Tampa doctor whose mug shot showed up when she was arrested for defending herself against a violent boyfriend and a college freshman who was busted for drugs in Florida but who went through a pretrial diversion program that should make his record clean. Both were still struggling with their images posted on mug-shot sites.
Sure, people had tried complaining about them on RipoffReport.com and similar sites. Recently, "victims" in Ohio filed a class-action lawsuit, claiming the sites are extortion. In Oregon, a legislator has filed a bill to fight them.
But operators of the sites say they're doing a service -- by making it easy to Google whether your kid's baseball coach or neighbor has a criminal record. Otherwise, people have to search a maze of dozens of city, county, and state police websites.
Also journalists have fought for the mug shots to remain publicly available. From the Times article:
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press favors unfettered access to the images, no matter how obscure the arrestee and no matter the ultimate disposition of the case. Even laws that force sites to delete images of the exonerated, the committee maintains, are a step in the wrong direction.
Ultimately, journalism may be more effective than any lawsuit -- once New York Times reporter David Segal started calling around for comment for his article, American Express, Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, and Discover all said they were either terminating their relationships with the mug-shot sites or investigating them.